One of the gifts of this past week at the College for Congregational Development was spending part of an afternoon with the Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry. (Those of us who went on the pilgrimage to the Holy Land will remember that we also ran into Bishop Curry in Jerusalem. I am beginning to suspect that Bishop Curry is following me around.) We had the opportunity, as a group, to ask him questions. And so I put up my hand and said something like this:
You have witnessed and endured a lot of unfair things in your life, a lot of unjust things. And yet you appear to be a joyous person. Why is that? What is the source of your joy?
Bishop Michael thought for a good length of time before speaking. And then he told us that part of his joy came from the people who raised him and with whom he grew up – he spent his early life with people who loved neighbour and loved life, and he caught that love from then. And then he said that another part of his joy came from scripture. We laugh with Jesus, he said, and then we cry, and then we laugh again. And then we go to the cross and we weep. And then that Mary Magdalene tells us that the tomb is empty. And we meet the resurrected Jesus and we laugh once more.
Listening to Bishop Michael talk about the Bible I was reminded of the old preacher who said that the reason he was so full of joy was that he had read the story and he knew how it ended.
That encounter with Bishop Michael was one of those holy coincidences that the Holy Spirit keeps on putting into my life and, maybe, into yours as well. Because hearing a spiritual leader talk about joy in spite of hard news, in the midst of hard news: well, that felt pretty timely this week.
The news coming from our southern border is awful. The news of children being taken from their parents by the agents of our country is appalling. Our nation is telling parents that they are taking their children to bathe them and then not bringing those children back. Our nation is deliberately causing the suffering of children, it is weaponising the suffering of those children. And then the leaders of our nation are citing the Bible to justifying that suffering.
Here is Romans 13:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.
There are two words for using the Bible in this fashion. (Actually, there are more than two words, but there are only two words that I can say in church. One of the other words I am not going to say has to do with bulls and what they what they sometimes leave in a field after a big meal.) The first word that I am allowed to say is proof texting: this is the habit of pulling a verse of scripture out of its context and away from scripture’s wider arc towards love and justice in order to back up your argument.
Romans 13, by the way, has an infamous history of being used in this fashion. This is the passage pointed at by slaveholders to justify the practice of owning other people. This is the passage cited in Nazi Germany to justify a brutal dictatorship. This is the passage cited in South Africa to justify apartheid. (There is a fantastic article in Washington post, by the way, that walks you through some of the history of folks defending their society’s wildly immoral actions by pointing at Romans 13.) Suffice to say, when you draw on this passage on an occasion such as this one, you’re not in such hot company.
There is a second word for using scripture in this fashion, for recruiting to sculpture argue that the state has God’s blessing to separate children from their parents and store them in a box store turned prison. A good number of people have said that word on Twitter. I’m going to say that word this morning.
That word is blasphemy.
Let’s do some Bible study. Let’s see what else scripture might have to say here. (And I am hugely indebted to my friend Heather for assembling most of these verses.)
Hebrews 13:2: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.
Zechariah 7:10: Do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor.
Leviticus 19:33–34: When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.
James 1:27: Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress…
Matthew 22:37–40 (This is Jesus talking now, our Lord and Saviour): “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
On these two commandments hang everything. One more (and this is nowhere close to an exhaustive list – this is kind of a huge theme in scripture) before we get back to Romans 13:
Matthew 25:34–36: Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
What is that passage called, by the way? Does anyone know? This is the Judgment of the Nations. Jesus says that this is what we together will be judged for, for what our nation does. This is how we will inherit the Kingdom, by welcoming the stranger.
But what about Romans 13 itself?
Paul writes in a rhetorical style that is pretty foreign to us. It is one of the things that can make his letters a hard read and sometimes an opaque read. He may not always mean what he appears to mean on first reading. For the sake of argument, however, I am going assume that Paul means pretty much just what he appears to mean in the letter. He is saying: Hey recipients of my letter in Rome, you should obey the law.
What is vital to understand here is that this letter is what scholars call situational. It is written by Paul to a particular group of people in a particular time of place. And the group to whom Paul is writing is comprised of Christians who are living under the boot of repression and brutality, who are enduring state-sponsored violence. He is saying to them: Obey the Roman’s law so that you don’t get yourself killed.
This is a letter, in other words, written as consolation and encouragement and advice to people who are living under oppression. It is a not a letter extending permission for the oppressor to do whatever evil it sees fit, so long as it passes a law first. If there is any question about that, then let’s keep on reading in the same chapter. Romans 13:
Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Maybe in light of the news from the border and the distortion of the Bible that we have heard in response to it, my question to Bishop Curry should’ve been different. Maybe what I should have asked is not, “given everything you have witnessed, everything that is going on in the world, how do you remain joyous?” but rather, “given everything you have witnessed, everything that is going on in the world, is it appropriate to be joyous?”
Today is the day at Grace on which we honour the choir. The choir which serves so faithfully across the fall, winter, and spring. Its members are here every Thursday night and every Sunday morn. If St. Augustine is right and those who sing pray twice, then the choir has doubled the amount of prayer in this room.
That is something for which to say thanks.
On an occasion such as this, when we name and say thanks for the presence of beauty in our midst – when we name that we are putting our time, talent, and treasure into beauty – sometimes you will ask a question of yourself or someone else will ask a question of you. And that question goes like this:
Given all that is wrong in the world, where are you putting resources into beauty? Why are you putting resources into joy? (For the purposes of this sermon, I am going to use the words “beauty” and “joy” more or less interchangeably.)
Think how many hungry people we could’ve fed by putting resources into food instead of installing stained glass windows or repairing a the organ. Why are we wasting our time with beauty and joy?
That’s a question that we need to take seriously. I’ve thought of at least two answers. The first is that beauty, that joy is a source of holy energy for us. Sometimes anger is a catalyst into action – when you hear about what is happening on our southern border, it is appropriate and motivating to be angry. But my experience is that if I get stuck in anger, I end up embittered and cynical. I don’t act at all.
Part of the reason that I come to church and seek out beauty is that this is a place in which I refill my reservoir. That refilling allows me to participate in justice, in compassion.
The other reason that putting resources into joy matters is that doing so reminds us of what the Kingdom looks like. The delight and experience and communion we experience here in church – that is what life is supposed to look like. We come here to remember what God wants for all us of, including refugees and migrants. Part of what church does is to give us a point of reference so that, when we see the news, we can look at it and say: That’s wrong. That’s not the way that people deserve to live.
Dostoyevsky was right when said, Beauty will save the world.
Today we hear one of a number of Gospel readings about the scattering of seeds. I think that these readings are funnier than we sometimes allow. In all of them there is this element of incompetence in the sower: the seeds are scattered all over the place, on rocky ground and on good soul; or in this case, the seeds are scattered by someone who is ignorant, who watches the seeds grow but doesn’t know how.
I wonder if these stories mean that the Kingdom is without limits, that God shares it broadly, that nowhere and no one is off limits, that even those places where you think the seeds ought not to go, there too God sows.
Or maybe these stories mean that, when the seed lands on the rock, you and I have the job of moving it to the soil. Maybe these are stories about our role as co-creators of the Kingdom.
We encounter joy in the choir, in Art Camp, in one other. That joy invites us to go forth and participate in building up the Kingdom of God.